Recently I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about mars, and more specifically features on the northern ice cap of mars. In the 70s we saw for the first time in any detail what mars looks like with the Mariner and Viking missions. Scientists ever since then have been busy studying the infinite number of interesting features found all over mars mostly with photographs but also gravimeters, spectrometers and an array of other instruments. It wasn’t until the mid 2000s that radar was sent to mars to look below the surface.
Here is what the northern ice cap looks like from above:
With radar we can see through shallow sedimentary and volcanic deposits, and most importantly, through the ice on the ice caps and other places. It’s like looking at an xray. And because of the way ice behaves at radar frequencies we can get a good deal of history out of the data.
And this is what radar data look like. This is a side view of the ice, the layers are like layers in a cake, and we’re standing beside the cake looking into a thin slice
This is where I come in. Since starting last fall I’ve spent hundreds of hours staring at these data and mapping out features we see. I am at a very lucky point in my life to have found an advisor with not only access but direct control of the radar data. Through him I can pick targets that the satellite observes, and through him I get full access to everything this instrument sees on mars. There are very few people that have this access, and of them they mainly think about other things.
So, here I am, poor little grad student doing what he’s told when it happens upon me that I’ve just figured something out that no one else has ever seen or thought of. Predictions were made in the 70s, but it was left at that for 3 full decades. I can prove some of the predictions and disprove others with very little effort. The effort was done by others that designed the satellite, launched it, and those that keep it running and point it where we want. Sitting from my desk in an office with no windows I can look at any part of mars I desire with only the touch of a mouse. And in that office I’ve even found some other things that are also interesting but not as much big picture.
Since that first big idea I’ve been writing and preparing presentations. I’ve given two already, one here at UT and another in Boulder at Southwest Research Institute to other members of the radar team. On Tuesday I give another talk to the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, the biggest group of people that studies mars and the other planets. I was already excited to give my talk! This morning while reorganizing my talk I realized something else, that, if true, will be huge, even bigger than my first discovery and slightly related, so more easily proven. People make careers on things like this! In just a couple months time I think I’ve contributed to solving two of the bigger, maybe biggest riddles on the northern ice cap.
Today’s discovery is very preliminary. I haven’t even discussed it with my advisor yet, and it’s up to him whether we bring it up at the conference or not. I’m of course too excited to leave it out, but patience is important, and we don’t want to stick our noses out unless we’re prepared to take a few blows. Besides, what I found before, with a lot more work, is already big enough to write a thesis, the capstone of my PhD.
This is such a great time in my life. I couldn’t be more happy with my life choices right now. I guess I’m tooting my own horn here, but this it too exciting to keep to myself.